Tom Mould, associate professor of anthropology and sociology, explained in LasRose Digital Theatre Tuesday night how people create, show and change stories through cultural narratives.
Mould, the winner of Elon University’s 2013-2014 Distinguished Scholar Award, shared how he stiches stories together from the oral traditions of the Choctaw Indians to the modern-day poverty tales of Alamance County.
“The way we create our own world we may not be entirely comfortable with,” Mould said. “[But] we create our world through stories.”
The audience erupted in laughter at some of Mould’s analogies, but listened intently to the more critical aspects of his lecture.
Mould drew from historical examples of creating narratives, like the “Welfare Queen,” to show how powerful narratives and stories can be.
In 1976, Mould recounted, when Ronald Reagan was vying for the Republican presidential nomination, how he told the story of one woman living a lavish life through welfare checks, slipping through holes in the system to prevent those who really needed the funding from receiving it.
This narrative became the “narrative for all welfare recipients,” Mould said.
This story has helped shape the welfare policy of the United States,, a common narrative in Mould’s work – the relation of one person to a much larger theme, how one story can speak for thousands of silent people.
“Stories are filtered through cultural beliefs and norms,” Mould said.
He shared stories from the Church of the Latter Day Saints to help the audience understand that cultural narratives sometimes trump the actual history of an event.
“Recognized genres in a culture can exert influence over actual events,” he said.
According to him, people change stories to match their cultural narratives and to shift the stories closer to them and add credibility to their accounts.
“The farther we are from the source, the less likely we are to believe,” he said. “Reducing the distance makes stories more powerful.”
This inclination to move stories closer has led to a different way of telling stories.
According to Mould, people remove all degrees of separation and talk about stories like they witnessed them, sometimes recasting fictional events and legends as real experiences.
Why do people do this? Mould said first-hand stories are more believable. People are less inclined to argue when they hear a story from the source.
Mould’s variations on “Welfare Queen” stories are told in much the same way. Mould retold an experience he had speaking with a woman. She recalled another woman in front of her at the grocery store attempting to buy dog food with food stamps, but they weren’t accepted for the transaction. So the woman, wearing a big fur coat, with nails done and clutching a designer handbag, bought a pair of steaks instead. tmould
But, Mould said, the woman could not remember when or where the incident had taken place. Mould acknowledged that maybe she really could not remember these details. But more than likely, she had heard it from somewhere else.
Through his research on this topic, Mould said he has found similar welfare narratives.
But they do serve a purpose.
Mould said that stories serve as bridges between our culture and our experiences.
“To be human is to tell stories,” Mould said. “They are everywhere.”